22 May 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Pandora's Problem

Tim Westergren is the founder and public face of Pandora and the Music Genome Project, a web source of unending musical enjoyment. Tim Westergren of Pandora.com I've mentioned Pandora a number of times here, mostly in connection with the NP (Now Playing) song at the bottom of any given blogitem.  Pandora is a webcaster with a unique proposition:  They create a "station" that plays music you like.  They have a troop of analysts who characterize musical selections by various criteria.  If you pick an artist for your "station," they will find other artists and other songs that meet the criteria and transmit them to you over the web.  After a while of their transmitting and your refining what you like or don't like, you receive a continuous stream of music you enjoy.  I never met Tim.  He travels around the country to promote and discuss his service and to meet his listeners.  I figured out a way that he could get rich and solve all his problems (which problems I'll get to in a minute) but through no fault of his beyond inconvenient scheduling I didn't manage to attend his road show and tell him my scheme.

The Pandora web site (along with other webcasting services) is one of the best things to happen to music fans ever.  Unlike the other guy The other guypictured, Tim isn't trying to suck the life out of Americans with time wasting and irritating policies.  Tim's company allows me to sit at my computer surrounded by almost continuously enjoyable music while I write my blogitems, attend to my email, and buy almost-free stuff on eBay.  Pandora has liberated me and millions of others from the tyranny of limited playlists, annoying DJs, and irritating commercials. 

Why, then, are we as a nation trying to put them out of business?  Perhaps you haven't read any of the recent news stories about the "Copyright Royalty Board" and their recent declaration that webcasters will henceforth (and retroactively as well) be obliged to pay a royalty on every song sent to every listener**.  This, although it doesn't seem instantly unfair, is a recipe for disaster.  The previous CRB position provided a "safe harbor" for the webcasting services:  They could simply pay a percentage of their revenue to the organization (Sound Exchange*) that is charged with collecting and distributing the money.  Continuing that policy was one option but they chose the payment-per-song-per-listener instead.  A mighty howl arose.  So mighty was the howl, in fact, that I actually contacted my congresscritter.  By telephone!  Of course I didn't actually talk to him, but an infinitely polite and well-spoken woman answered the telephone in his office, inquired of my needs, and tallied my support for Pandora and all who sail in her.

The issue remains pending.  My congresstron sent me a letter with a briefing on the legislation and asserted that, although he is not on the committee to which a support bill was referred,  "I will remember your support should this bill come before the full House of Representatives for a vote."  By which, of course, he means he may vote for it or against it or not at all, depending upon a number of considerations of which my telephone call was one in a hopefully large barrel.  Large, one hopes, because this is an emotional issue for listeners; very few people are likely to call saying "Please deny me web music."  I'm cautiously hopeful that we'll get to keep Pandora. 

Part Two, where I shoot myself in the foot

An interesting aspect of this issue is the seemingly surprising obduracy of the CRB in the face of essentially unanimous support from the webcasting communityboth senders and receiversfor a financial model that will allow them to continue to exist.  One argument goes thus:

Radio stations already broadcast a "stream" and have an arrangement whereby they pay a certain amount for music depending on their market size.  They do not pay "per song per listener" and they don't pay extra to stream their station on the web.  A webcaster is essentially broadcasting music just as a radio station does, just via a different medium.  It's neither easier nor harder to record songs off the web than the radio, and you can neither pick nor know which song is next.  I.e., similar to radio.  Why treat them differently in terms of royalties?

Another, which speaks to the benefits to the record labels, is that these services encourage the purchase of music.  On the one hand, the music is streamed so that you can't record individual songs for future listening.  On the other, you are exposed to a lot of music you wouldn't otherwise hear.  If you like something and can't record it, you'll buy it, right?  If the providers, the users, and the industry that has the most to gain or lose all gain, why has the CRB, which is supposed to listen to all parties, being so refractory?  Is it just another federal bureaucracy with whom USDUC must remonstrate to set on the correct path?  Or is there perhaps a flaw or so in my summary?  (Or, of course both.)

I have a theory.  I think it's mine, although others may have developed it as well, and it goes like this:

1:  Pandora (and the others) are TOO GOOD.
2:  Tim Westergren (and others) AREN'T GREEDY ENOUGH.

Let's make another comparison between webcasting and broadcast radio.  When I listen to Pandora, I can listen forever.  Pretty much every song I hear I like, or at least don't not like.  If by some chance they play something I hate (My Gal is Red Hot), I can click a "don't play this any more" button and they won't!  There are no (for now) nasty audio commercials.  Apparently they eke out their income from little ads that pop up on their screen, ads which can easily be ignored if they're even noticed at all.  Radio, as much as I love it, is a comparatively miserable experience.  Commercials!  Layla!  I am lucky to have two decent local stations and we are all lucky to have the occasional good programsVin Scelsa and Little Steven.  But, in general, when I hear a song on the radio, I think to myself:  "Maybe I should buy that CD" and when I hear it on Pandora, I think to myself "Maybe I should..." and drop the thought because here's another song I like that maybe I should buy and then another and another.  Of course I usually listen to the radio in the car, and so the name of the artist on the CD is long forgotten by the time I arrive since I had nothing to write it on and I have a mind like a steel sieve. 

In other words:  With such great music and the lack of audio ads, Pandora is so good that maybe, even with all that new music you're hearing, you don't need to buy any of it.  Which scares the record labels almost as much as the other aspects of the internet that have been conspiring to ruin their business since the days of Napster.  (If Tim were greedy enough, maybe he'd slip in some audio ads to make Pandora unattractive enough to satisfy the industry.)  It's a somewhat longer theory than the famous one relating to dinosaur shape and size, but not excessively so.  Will we get to keep our Pandora?  Call your representative in Congress and get your encouragement on the list.  You don't have to mention my theory. 

Q & A

Q:  Didn't you say, up in the first paragraph, that you "figured out a way that he could get rich and solve all his problems?"
A:  Yes, I did.  I'm always doing that sort of thing.  I like solving other people's problems (and, of course, giving free advice to people who are happier than I am).

Q:  Well, what is it?
A:  Don't be in such a hurry.  I'm saving it for another blogitem.

Q:  Who's the "other guy?"
A:  Patience

*Sound Exchange is also the name of a "record" shop I discovered after I moved to New Jersey, one where I augmented my collection of vinyl records by a substantial quantity before the advent of the CD.

*Sound Exchange was also the name of a now-defunct recording studio in New York City, whose story I know better than most.  Perhaps I'll relate it some day.

**It's actually much worse, because there's a charge for every stream as well.  Services which personalize selections instead of sending the same stream to all listeners get hit especially hard.

NP:  "Making Movies" - Dire Straits (on, no surprise, Pandora)

Richard Factor

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